May 10, 2018

Hugo Reading 2018: The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

“The Cloud Roads” rezensiert in der Bibliotheka Phantastika

After last year's trial run, the Hugos now have a category of Best Series. The Books of the Raksura, by Martha Wells, is among the nominees. I'd read exactly one work by Martha Wells, All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries (which I loved and nominated for Best Novella). So when I got my first stack of Hugo nominees from the library, I decided Wells' series would be the first I'd tackle. 

What an excellent decision. I discovered a book, and a series, I'd only vaguely heard of and might never have read, and which I came to love unreservedly. This book pretty much hit all my sweet spots--worldbuilding, characterization, and more than that, the "sense of wonder" engendered by only the best science fiction and fantasy. 

This book takes place on an alternate world that is most definitely not Earth, and features characters that are sapient but not human. (As a matter of fact, there are several non-human sentient races on the Three Worlds, and I hope subsequent books in the series spends some time with them, especially the insectoid Dwei.) Our protagonist Moon is a member of such a race, the shapeshifting Raksura. He begins the book not knowing this is what he is, only that he can shift into another form with wings, tail and claws, and he must hide this ability from the "groundling" clans he lives with. Moon serves as a necessary stand-in for the reader, without which we would be hopelessly lost. Martha Wells hits the ground running with this book, immediately drawing the reader in, and provides a master class in conveying a complex world and multiple non-human cultures without infodumps. Nearly every paragraph, it seems, provides some nugget of information, the result being that we learn about the Three Worlds and the Raksura along with Moon, and the pace and flow of the story never flags. 

There's quite a balancing act here, as all the characters are recognizably people, but never human--there isn't a homo sapiens to be found, and I fervently hope that remains so through the rest of the series. All intelligent beings, Wells is saying (unless they're so alien as to be incomprehensible, which is not the case here, nor could it be), have similar drives: they love, they suffer, they fight to survive, to have a place, to belong. This aptly sums up Moon's personal journey with the Indigo Cloud Court. His story begins with a rapid-fire series of shocks: being discovered, cast out and nearly killed by his groundling clan; rescued and taken in by a member of his true people, the Raksura; and coming into conflict with the book's primary antagonists, another race of flying shapeshifters (and a nasty, murderous one) known as the Fell. This is a lot to set up, especially as we're being introduced to the world and the Raksuran culture along the way. This is not to say the prose and character beats are frantic or rushed; they aren't, and there are periodic pauses both for Moon and the reader to breathe and digest what's happening. But even in these moments of relative quiet, something is going on: character work, an examination of themes and motivations, more reveals about the Three Worlds and its inhabitants. It's well-balanced and wonderfully done.

I also appreciated Moon as a character. He's not a hotheaded kid; he's a pragmatic, mature adult, and while he makes mistakes, he is neither impulsive nor arrogant. He is loyal and kind, and once he makes up his mind to stay with Indigo Cloud, he goes all in, even though his ultimate place there is up in the air until the end of the book. Despite the tight focus on Moon, the supporting characters are also well drawn, especially the Indigo Court's secondary queen, Jade, who Moon becomes consort to. (Yes, there's an appendix at the end describing the various forms and castes of Raksura, but while I appreciated it, I'm not sure it was necessary. Everything I needed to know was imparted in the book itself.) The story ends with one of those quiet moments, with the Indigo Court having defeated the Fell (at least one iteration, although we know they will be back) and are on their way to their new colony.

Just to show how much I was impressed by this, I hadn't even finished reading this book before I got on the computer and ordered the rest of the series, sight unseen. It's so wonderful to discover an underrated and, I think, somewhat overlooked author in Martha Wells. I hope her exposure in this year's Hugo awards creates many more enthusiastic fans of her work. 

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